Administration defends council’s finances

ADMINISTRATION councillors have angrily hit out at claims the council’s spending has been cut unnecessarily in the lead up to this year’s £20 million underspend.

Representatives of the ruling Liberal-Conservative-Independent coalition hit back at the SNP’s response to auditor Deloite’s independent report, which criticised the scale of the savings.

Council leader Jim Gifford described the accusations as “mean spirited” and went on to suggest that, overall, the council was being run efficiently.

He said: “This was an excellent report from the auditors. A report in which the council received an unmodified statement of accounts. That means that the auditors found no fault with the accounts – they gave us a clean bill of health. They found that our financial statements give a true and fair view of the accounts and that they had been properly prepared in accordance with best practice.”

Defending the underspend, he added: “The underspends came from many sources including efficient financial management and additional income. Finance officers were very aware of the changing underspend situation and had already put corrective actions in place when the audit took place. The current monitoring reports are reporting the figures in a different way and are now designed to take much more account of potential risk.

“What we cannot do is use a crystal ball to predict savings a year in advance so that we can increase the budget to make sure that those savings don’t happen.

“This is exactly what the SNP are suggesting that we should have been able to do. If anyone thinks that they can do that then they can give me a call and help me chose my lottery numbers next week.

“We as a council welcome this report. This is what the auditors are paid to do. They have to check our accounts for accuracy – they have done that and sent them back unmodified.”

Cllr Gillian Owen attacked the Times for using ‘emotive language’ to illustrate the auditor’s criticisms, saying: “I am appalled with the Ellon Times who saw fit to use the term ‘lashed’ in its front page headline, when referring to the External Auditors Report. As chairman of the Scrutiny and Audit Committee I can categorically state that at no point in the report is that term used.

“Indeed Deliotte have given the council an ‘unmodified’ report which means we have a ‘clean bill of health’. The committee picked up on a number of recommendations by the auditors which will help improve the councils accounting procedures. The committee agreed that they would monitor the proposals laid out by the auditors in their letter to the council’s senior management team.”

Liberal Democrat Ellon councillor Isobel Davidson said that the opposition had agreed in principle to the budgetary plans, and that the SNP had ‘taken its eye off the ball’ by not making its concerns known earlier.

“The draft budget was agreed in November 2010 by members of the Administration supported by the SNP, though Cllr Merson and a number of others declined to vote.

“All parties agreed with the base budget - the level of savings proposed was not questioned. Throughout the year, regular budget monitoring reports are submitted to the Policy and Resources Committee which has representation from all groups within the council.

“At no time during these meetings was there any discussion on the accuracy of budget monitoring. All budget monitoring reports were agreed by all members, though at one meeting the SNP voted against moving funds from revenue to capital.

“It is very surprising now that the SNP are slating the Administration for poor budget monitoring when they were part of the whole process. Hamish Vernal can be forgiven as he is a new boy and still a bit green on how the council works, but Rob Merson should have been well aware of the process.

“The audit shows that Aberdeenshire Council has very sound financial management but there are things we must do better. This is to be expected from examination by a new auditor and constructive criticism is welcomed.”

Meanwhile, Nationalist councillors re-iterated calls for the administration to re-think its provision of wardens at the Shire’s sheltered housing complexes.

Cllr Rob Merson said: “Having axed permanent sheltered housing officers, Aberdeenshire Council has failed to maintain even the reduced level of cover which was assured - and elderly and vulnerable residents are now being put at risk.

“I have received numerous complaints that sheltered housing complexes are being left without officer cover for entire days.

“Those arrangements are currently being reviewed, and the outcome is to be brought before councillors in November. I have therefore written to the director of Housing and Social Work to call for the abandonment of this policy.”